The Role of the Chief Sustainability/Climate/Resilience Officer in U.S. Cities
Welcome to The Sustainable City Podcast. Until just over a decade ago, there was no such thing as a Sustainability Director or Chief Resilience Officer for cities. Now, cities feel incomplete without them. What are these jobs and why are they so essential to achieving urban sustainability goals? In this month’s episode, we pose these questions to our guests, Melanie Nutter, former Director of San Francisco’s Department of Environment, and Susie Strife, Director of the Office of Sustainability, Climate Action and Resilience for Boulder County, Colorado.
William Shutkin: Until just a decade ago, there was no such thing as a sustainability director or chief resilience officer for cities. Now, cities feel incomplete without them. What are these jobs and why are they so essential to achieving urban sustainability goals?
For this episode of The Sustainable City Show, we pose these questions and more to our two guests, Melanie Nutter and Susie Strife. Melanie is the principal of Nutter Consulting, providing sustainability and smart city strategy development and implementation for cities, foundations, and companies. In July of 2010, Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed Melanie as the director of the San Francisco Department of Environment, which she led until 2014.
During her tenure, San Francisco achieved an 80 percent waste diversion rate, reduced its carbon emissions to 14.5 percent below 1990 levels, and was named the greenest city in North America by Siemens and the Economist Intelligence Unit. From 2005 to 2010, Melanie served as the deputy district director for the U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She is chair emeritus for the Energy and Environment Circle for the Full Circle Fund and served on the planning committee for the Urban Sustainability Directors Network and chaired its innovation fund. Melanie is a graduate of Northwestern University.
As director of the office of sustainability climate action and resilience for Boulder County, Colorado, Susie Strife has led Boulder County’s efforts to strengthen its status as a national leader in sustainability. In this role, Susie directs and manages all Boulder County’s sustainability efforts, policies and programs with a special focus on clean energy, finance, and climate action. Susie launched her career developing the country’s first nationwide clean energy financing program. Later, Susie received a $25 million Department of Energy grant to jumpstart the energy efficiency and clean energy marketplace across Colorado, creating the award-winning energy smart service that several utilities across the country have used as a model for demand side management in their energy programs.
Most recently, along with colleagues at the city of Boulder, Susie created Communities for Climate Action, which is the first community-based coalition in Colorado lobbying for climate protective policies. Susie received her PhD from the University of Colorado, Boulder funded by the EPA science to achieve results fellowship and her BA from Middlebury College. Welcome, Melanie and Susie. Andy?
Andy Bush: Thank you both for being here. This is wonderful. Melanie and Susie, it’s great to have you part of the program. It’s almost a profession that’s snuck in there from the side in that when we look at five, 10 years ago, the thought of sustainability officers or resiliency as a position in a community wasn’t really something that was on the tip of your tongue. Today, it’s the new normal. Melanie, when you look at the word resiliency or sustainability, how do you think of that as a framework today?
Melanie Nutter: Sure. Well, thanks so much for having me. Really excited to be here and have this discussion with all of you today. Let’s see. So I was, as William mentioned, the director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, and as you’ll notice, sustainability is not part of that title. That’s partly because the department was established back in 1996. So that was before sustainability was even a thing. Over the years there has been this evolution where municipalities in particular have really embraced this term around sustainability, so thinking not only about how to protect the natural environment, but what is the impact of those actions and those policies on the community and on people.
I would say the third component, really, of sustainability is around economy and, really, funds — how that impacts it. So I would say sustainability more broadly really is not only protecting the natural environment, which is the original idea, but then how does it connect to community and to people. So that’s how I think of it.
I would say regarding resilience, that’s another one of those terms that has really come up through the ranks in the past decade or so, where it’s communities really starting to think about what are the impacts of climate change and what do communities really need to do to be able to adapt and to think through what are they going to do to ward off the worst effects of climate change and support the community in that. So we can talk more about how sustainability and resilience now intertwine, but those are some initial thoughts.
Andy Bush: That’s great. Susie, what would you add to that from your perspective?
Susie Strife: Yeah. That’s great. Again, thank you so much for having us. It’s already an inspiration to meet you, Melanie. So it’s interesting that you say that before there was no sustainability office, it was a program for the environment. Interestingly enough, when I graduated Middlebury College and then wanted to get into the sustainability field, there were no graduate programs or anything defined with sustainability in the terminology either when I was wanting to catapult my career.
So I did my PhD in environmental studies and it was interesting because I focused on environmental sociology, and I was really looking at the intersectionality between how humans behave and how we get them to behave with regulation and policy. There still wasn’t a nested sustainability term or it just started to burgeon as I was leaving graduate school.
So I entered the county as one of the first ever sustainability professionals that they hired back 14 years ago. While sustainability was part of the concept, it was really birthed from the idea that this person in the organization should be a change agent to accelerate and showcase what’s possible as far as the integration of sustainability policy and action within the organization.
What’s interesting is that we started very small. It was all about operational efficiency and making sure that all of our internal policies and walking the talk internally organizationally, and now the role has evolved dramatically to providing those services for the public at large and understanding how to accelerate the pilot potential for sustainability and climate action and resilience for the entire Boulder County region.
So what started, again, as something small and operational has expanded dramatically. Interestingly enough, as the role evolved to incorporate resilience, obviously, the scope of the job has increased dramatically. Where we were once just the office of sustainability, now we’re the office of sustainability, climate action, and resilience.
We just had one of the most destructive wildfires in Colorado history, the Marshall fire, and now we are having to not only mitigate the climate crisis — prepare for and mitigate the climate crisis — we are also having to respond to and adapt to these events, these climate catastrophes that are happening in our community.
So it’s like we’re actors on the frontline of the climate crisis while also working to mitigate the impacts of environmental degradation that have happened over time. So it’s overwhelming, honestly, to have all of that in the title and all of that work to do in and for your community, and it’s also an honor and a privilege.
William Shutkin: Wow, Susie. As you’re talking and, Melanie, you introducing the subject with your experience in San Francisco, I’m thinking between Boulder today as this epicenter of natural disasters, fires and floods, to say nothing of the pandemic. And of course, Melanie, San Francisco, as you know, the epicenter, literally, of so many big earthquakes. You both have had experience in two of perhaps the most challenging, the most active urban areas, at least in the country, at least in the U.S., if not beyond. So you bring, I think, some really powerful experience and insight.
Susie, you’ve been in the same post more or less for 14 years. Melanie, you’ve been a part of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network almost since its inception 15 years ago. I’d love for each of you to give us a view into how the positions you’ve taken on have, in fact, changed, shifted, evolved. Susie, you’ve just said your program title has expanded well beyond environment or sustainability. What are some of the key new program elements that these positions are responsible for, and are they, in fact, too much? I mean, how does one department, one program deal with everything from climate justice to waste management, to stakeholder engagement and do it effectively?
Melanie Nutter: I’m happy to jump in here.
William Shutkin: Sure.
Melanie Nutter: So the first thing that I’ll mention is just to set the baseline for the sustainability role. Because I think for folks who are really thinking about what is that role, what has that role been, in the example of the city of San Francisco running the Department of the Environment, it was really being responsible for most of the urban sustainability programs with the exception of water because that was with the Public Utilities Commission. So that was everything from the zero waste program, renewable energy program, energy efficiency, clean transportation, outreach and education, outreach in schools, so all of what you would think about in the built environment and the transportation sector, thinking about how to make those sectors more sustainable. So I think that’s really where the position had been, is those focus areas.
It’s interesting, Susie, what you say about how it really started at the municipal level and it was really about the operations and then expanded community-wide. Because I do think communities that are just starting to have sustainability directors do start in that way, where it really is that municipal focus and then expanding out from there.
I would say one of the main changes that I’ve seen both for the city of San Francisco role, as well as some of the work that I do now as a consultant, is that equity and inclusion, as well as resilience adaptation, are critical components to a sustainability role. I think there are a lot of reasons for that, but I think it’s really this understanding that you can only be a sustainable community if you really are thinking about every community in all populations and ensuring that — whether it’s improving a zero-waste program in terms of recycling and composting or whether it’s really looking at environmental justice and public health issues. That is really what makes a sustainable community at a broad level. So those are two of the main things that I’ve seen evolved — resilience and adaptation being part of the role, as well as equity and inclusion.
Susie Strife: Yeah. That’s exactly right, Melanie. I would agree with you that a lot of what we do is providing the services and programs to ensure that all the sectors in our community are able to participate in the call for either climate action or sustainability. So for example, one of the largest sectors of emitters is our business sector, so commercial building space in the built environment. So how do we unlock decarbonization, electrification, and all of those great things, and basically combine services and incentives in addition to policy and regulation? So that’s the sweet spot, I think, that local government can play is initiating the incentive side — the carrot and the stick of the regulation like building codes to ensure that we have the outcomes that we want.
It’s becoming very clear that achieving net zero by 2035 is going to be extraordinarily difficult unless we pivot everything — all hands on deck — and then change, honestly, our entire economy. So as much as I think it’s important that municipalities play a role in providing these services, local governments, let’s be clear, have been so far ahead of state and federal government in providing, understanding the pilot, and showcasing the opportunity, and we’re still not doing enough.
So what’s really important and where I see the entire field having evolved is creating regional partnerships and making sure that we are working at systems change. So when we initiated the office of sustainability, we were all about individual action at that point. That was 15 years ago when we were trying to engage one-off consumer behavior. Now we’re saying we need to change the systems. The same systems, by the way, that are set up perfectly to disempower communities are the same systems that have degraded our environment.
So when we talk about systems change at Boulder County we say, “Oh, my goodness, how can one little local government play a role in massive system change?” Well, we’re suing Exxon and Suncor. We’re suing some of the largest and dirtiest fossil fuel companies on planet earth to say, “You need to pay your fair share in damages related to climate impacts.”
What we’re also doing is divesting from our own insurance companies. They need to divest now from fossil fuel investments, and we’re trying to engage with other communities to do the same. We’re also creating coalitions, not just working in isolation. Each municipality working in isolation is, honestly, it’s a futile effort at this point to be frank, and I’m just letting you know, I’m an optimist, but I’m also a realist. When we look up and outward and we are able to pool our purchasing power, our procurement power, our policy leverage, we are able to have so much more of an impact.
So I think that that’s where we’re seeing those types of systematic shifts and that is really new and innovative thinking for a local government to play a role in. I’ll give you a minor example. Last week, we were the first city or county in the country to really put out an investment for carbon dioxide removal. We know that we need deep emissions reductions. We also know that we will need at a gigaton scale massive carbon removal from the atmosphere to restore our atmosphere.
So we are just sending these market signals as a player in the space to say, “Look, one little government can do this,” and then we’re building coalitions in the four corners region to pool our purchasing power to do even more in that space. So I think that’s where I’ve seen the shift. A lot of, again, the more individual action has changed much more into what can we do at scale as a local government. I think that’s pretty amazing that a local government can have that type of role, whether that’s vis-a-vis policy, vis-a-vis regulation or, again, pooling our purchasing power.
Andy Bush: Let’s take the thread of it’s very difficult for a community to solve all the problems, right, Melanie? It becomes regional, it becomes national, and it also becomes sector-based. So let’s take something like buildings, commercial buildings, which are a big problem. How can we address them at a local level, a regional level, a utility level, and a national level so we can get where we need to in that specific sector?
Melanie Nutter: There’s so many great examples that you just gave about how you can be bold at the local level. That’s why I think so often municipalities and at the local level can really go far beyond what is happening at the state and federal level because you can take those bold actions and say, “We’re going to send whether it’s a market signal, whether it’s holding a company accountable.” Being able to take those actions, I think, is really fantastic. I would just really agree with you on the regional approach. I think that is the other thing that I think has both changed but is also helping to elevate the impact of local action — being able to create those regional coalitions.
A couple things that I’ll say just in response to Andy. What you had mentioned is having this regional impact and how to collaborate among sectors. One of the things that I’m working on right now is with a coalition called Power A Clean Future Ohio. They’re a coalition of about 30 municipalities that have joined this coalition and said, “We are each going to establish a carbon emission reduction goal to reduce our carbon by 30% percent by 2030.”
Part of that program is really looking to the federal level for federal funding to support these reductions that we want to see. So through the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a lot of the funding that is going to come for renewable energy and electric vehicles, we’re really looking at how to facilitate some of those regional partnerships not only to set the goals, put the programs together, but to bring some of that federal funding to the local level to try to bring down some of the carbon emissions in sectors like building. So I know Susie is a lot more on the front lines of the implementation, the current implementation, but those are a few thoughts.
Susie Strife: Yeah. Thank, Melanie. It’s very inspirational to have this back and forth. I think that, Andy, to your question about electrifying and decarbonizing the commercial space, this is where we need national and state leadership, and this is exactly why regional partnerships work — because starting in 2015, we looked at our greenhouse gas inventory after we had a baseline and we compared it to another inventory 10 years later. After deep investment in all sectors for sustainability. So we had a $25 million Department of Energy grant and we were just about to launch the first-ever county sustainability tax, which now funds our office. We saw no dips in emissions despite deep investment in this area. The real reductions in emissions came from the state renewable portfolio standard and the federal cafe standards for fuel efficiency.
So what does that tell us? It tells us that as much as you can do locally, it’s great and it’s really important to activate your citizenship, and it’s really now important to make sure that people know about climate impacts and are well-aware of how to adapt to and respond to and react to future climate catastrophes. That’s the resilience component, but what’s essential is that we are banding together on federal and climate policy and state climate policy. That’s why communities for climate action is essential — because that is 40 paying members across the state of Colorado, western slope, small communities, big communities in the front range paying membership dues proportionate to their population for lobbyists who are down there at the state capital every single day fighting on behalf of all of those communities for climate protective policy, and one of those major policies is a statewide building code.
So that’s the type of thing where each community on a one-off scale can do their best when it comes regulation, building codes, policy, electrification incentives, but if we don’t have that umbrella policy that is needed at that national or state level scale, it really is going to continue to be a one-off and it’s not enough to tackle the climate crisis. It really isn’t.
So that’s why working in unison together and looking up and outward and banding together under one umbrella organization or two pathways in a regional approach is absolutely imperative at this point. It would’ve been fine if we had more time to solve this crisis, but in the next decade, we need the most deep emission reductions, and that includes the built environment space. So I’ll leave it at that.
Andy Bush: No, that’s great.
William Shutkin: Well said, Susie. So a couple of things come to mind as I listen to you both, and I’m so impressed with both the experience and the knowledge that you both bring to this conversation. I mean, it’s truly remarkable. So I trust that you, at this point, have, well, deep insight into the most effective pathway forward. Susie, I hear you talking about the importance of regional and, indeed, state and national leadership. Of course, I think about the dysfunction, at least at the national level, that we’ve seen for so long, but certainly these days. Yes, we’ve passed an infrastructure bill, but many of us bemoaned the stripping out of that package so much investment that we thought would be critical to our long-term sustainability success.
Having said that, it sounds like one of the key roles that each of you and your respective positions and colleagues can play is that of a broker between these different levels of government, whether they’re dysfunctional or not, and depending on which jurisdiction or state you’re talking about, you will have less or more success in bringing all of these folks together for this bigger scale collective action.
Susie, Colorado, especially under Jared Polis and with Will Toor, who will be a guest on this show soon, we’re lucky. We’ve got some good leadership committed to long-term social policy goals. What about those regions or states that are not so fortunate to have that kind of visionary leadership or effective leadership? A: how can your partners in, say, a red state where the leadership says, “We don’t really care that much about climate or climate justice. We’re committed to oil and gas for the foreseeable future” — how might they be effective doing what you’re trying to do?
Then B: we can’t avoid the individual, right? Where you were saying, Susie, we started years ago in Boulder County focused on individual behavior, we do still have to reckon with the fact that we as Americans are still buying bigger cars and bigger houses and not withstanding all of our efficiency gains. We’re just getting bigger and we’re growing out on the margins. So how do you thread that needle on the one hand, not ignoring the individual actor, on the other hand, trying to engage with regional state and national leaders who really might not be willing, well, to engage?
Susie Strife: There is a lot in that statement and those questions, William. So I’ll start with the individual action piece just because that’s where you left off. I think, why are we allowed to build 10,000 square foot homes? Why are we allowed to … It comes down to sending the signal that this is against any social … We have social norms that help us understand why we act the way we do, and we have regulation and policy that prevents us from acting the way that we do, and we have incentives to act the way that we do, right?
So I think it comes down to having a moment, a critical mass moment in society where we understand that these individual actions are at the detriment, basically, of all of our futures, including our children if you have them, and it’s an international disgrace to continue to live the way that Americans have lived.
William Shutkin: What we value as a social norm, perhaps above all others , is freedom, which includes the freedom to choose what size house to build, where to live — yeah, regulation in certain cases, but we have chosen the path largely of a minimalist state, at least when it comes to regulating private property and decisions, consumer decisions, right?
Susie Strife: That’s correct, and I will say we have a very stringent building code here at Build Smart that does not allow you to build that type of house unless it’s completely net zero or even carbon positive. So if you have to live that way, we are adding in the regulation component that requires… If you’re emitting that one ton per carbon, you should be responsible for figuring out how to get yourself to net zero and/or net positive or carbon.
So I think there’s different ways to look at it, but I think we have allowed for that. At some point, in the tipping point of all of the climate impacts, one in five Americans now are experiencing climate-related catastrophes. They might not recognize the connection between climate change and those alarming events that are happening — floods, fire, wildfires, all sorts of different things, right? So I think that there will be, at some point, a federal tipping point, and once those signals are sent to those red states and whatever else, I do think that the regulation will play a much larger role, and a price on carbon will also incentivize that change pretty quickly because that’s embedded then into our capitalistic structure, right?
So as much as I’d like to say that we have to solve this outside of capitalism, we also have to understand that our constraints are within that capitalist market. I think if we have $100 per ton on carbon, that might make it impossible for the behavior that we have today.
William Shutkin: Hey, outside of say Colorado and California, speaking of state and national leadership, are there, Melanie and Susie, jurisdictions that you look to as models, again, outside of Colorado and California, which in some ways have become poster children for sustainability leadership? I mean, who is being most effective at organizing different stakeholders at different levels of governance to scale up the actions and interventions that you’re talking about?
Andy Bush: I would say when you talk about that, also throw in New York City in their future upcoming carbon tax and perspectives on that.
William Shutkin: Yeah. What city, states, regional governments are in your mind way out front, if any?
Melanie Nutter: So I had a couple thoughts about your last question if that’s okay.
William Shutkin: Please. Go ahead.
Melanie Nutter: Yeah. So just to chime in on individual action, Susie, I agree with everything that you were describing about what’s needed, and I think the city of San Francisco is a really interesting example of how to shape and shift individual behavior. I think it really is around using the carrot and the stick. I think the zero waste example is a really interesting one where recycling and composting in the city of San Francisco is mandated, and whether or not certain community members like it, there actually is monitoring of the bins about whether or not people have contaminated bins and they do get fined. For better or for worse, that is a both carrot and a stick and a mandate to be able to drive behavior in the right direction. I do think there’s a lot of other policies and programs with the city of San Francisco that incentivize, as well as can penalize behavior regarding impact on the environment.
I wanted to talk more specifically about red states since I am working in the state of Ohio. There is right now this movement at the local level to really support local sustainability and climate action, and that is because there has been so much inaction at the state level. Actually, there’s been a lot of detrimental work at the state level.
So in the state of Ohio, we right now see mayors and city council members of all political stripes coming to the sustainability table not only because it’s the right thing to do environmentally, but because it has great economic benefits. So that is one of the things that we’re seeing is a lot of policymakers and decision-makers saying: “We want to do this both because it’s the right thing to do for the environment and the community, as well as because it’s the right thing to do for the bottom line of the city.”
So just wanted to mention that there are some hopeful signs in red states where there’s not a lot of action at the state level where you can really see that action at the local level.
Susie Strife: That’s awesome.
Andy Bush: Go ahead, Sue.
Susie Strife: Well, I just wanted to, yeah, tie a bow on this whole individual action and collective change because it is a very important point. If you look at who created the carbon footprint, that was BP. If you look at why it’s so difficult for us to recycle as human beings, it’s a code that the plastic industry has created to create difficulty for us to engage in that sustainability behavior. It’s very challenging, and that’s on purpose. So I think that we need to be very skeptical about anything but systems change at this point and asking the deeper question, “Why is it so challenging to participate as a consumer in the call to sustainability?” The systems set us up to fail as individual actors, and those are the systems that need to break down and change and make it as easy as possible.
Sustainability shouldn’t even be a special choice. All of the labels, everything, it should be the only choice. It should be the only choice to go into a car dealership and buy an electric vehicle. I think we’ve put too much on that individual actor without asking the question about why we’re set up to fail that way. So it keeps us chasing our tail, and I feel like we’ve been duped, and there’s many more booby traps at that level. Why, we should ask, is the system setting us up to act this way?
Andy Bush: Yeah. I think about us as a developer of electric buildings, and up until the most recent law in Colorado, I couldn’t charge for electricity. I had to come up with a different way to do it because I was considered a utility if I did that. Or I look at Excel, and Excel wasn’t legally allowed to subsidize electrification. So I think we’ve got some pretty ingrained institutions that instead of cross-pollinating, the legal framework has been designed to protect their institution rather than have a building that produces its own power charges fairly for that, takes from the grid, puts electricity back on a grid. No one really wanted to look at even two-way chargers because the fire marshal didn’t want one more switch to turn off the same way. They don’t like the inverter switch if there is a fire, and it’s complicated and messy, but I think the solution is complicated and messy. Keeping it simple keeps us in our chains in each one of those different industries.
William Shutkin: So interesting. Well, I think back at the origins of the position that we’re talking about, and I think one of the reasons this idea of an urban sustainability director or chief sustainability/resilience/climate action officer for cities is so compelling, and you said this earlier, Melanie: so much action the last decade or decade and a half has taken place largely at this municipal level because in some ways, it is a sweet spot between that purely local individual action and these much larger economic and political systems that we’re talking about, which are so akin to that metaphorical oil tanker, which is really tough to turn, whether it’s U.S. Congress or Ford and General Motors.
So there is, for me anyway, this really special power and allure that your positions have because you are somewhere in between that purely local and individual and that big unwieldy national federal. Do you agree? Is that a helpful way of looking at these new positions, this new field, or am I off base?
Melanie Nutter: I would agree 100 percent. I mean, I do think that sweet spot is working at the local level, you’re close enough to the community that you can impact individual action and individual choice, and then you also have the platform of the municipality to be able to take broader action throughout the municipal footprint, as well as the community. So it is this sweet spot where it’s really tangible, and having worked both for the federal government as well as for the local level, I really experienced firsthand the excitement of working at the federal level to try to move that large tanker even a little bit, but knowing how challenging that is and how difficult that is and being able to then shift gears and work at the local level was a different type of very rewarding experience because it’s so tangible and it’s so practical.
William Shutkin: I mean, you’re literally talking about, as you said, incentives and penalties for how you use your recycling bin in San Francisco. Melanie, you’ve seen Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, one of the most powerful politicians of our time, who the last year literally couldn’t give money away for these investments because of politics, right? So there’s a real logic to your retreat perhaps to this municipal scale, but I also love, Susie, what you’re saying about the ability to innovate.
I mean, I remember talking to you when you were about to launch the county sustainability tax five, six years ago, and how exciting — and it’s only grown and it’s funded your department, which is now three dozen strong, plus or minus, which is so cool. And then your ability to take those local, let’s say, countywide innovations and begin to scale them through these regional collaborations. But so much of that depends on you, Susie, and you, Melanie, which is to get at another question: What are some of the particular skills that you think the two of you and others like you possess that allow you, enable you to be effective, to take that really local intervention, be it an incentive or a regulatory tool, then organize a larger group, say, of many counties or regions, and then actually think about state and national piloting or scaling? What are some of the skills that you think you possess or others like you possess that are uniquely aligned with this kind of success?
Susie Strife: Such a great question. I’m excited to hear your answer, Melanie, but I think what I’m seeing in this space for the actors that are having a real meaningful impact on the replicability — so what we do — and you just said this, William, is that what we do either in San Francisco or in Boulder County or in Seattle or in Portland is a drop in the bucket greenhouse gas emission-wise, but if we can see the big picture of where our programs, services, regulations, policies, etc., can be replicated and then blossom outward, whether that’s through state or other replication — like we’ve had some of our programs replicated in Europe, and that was the greatest compliment of all time because I always look to Europe for some inspiration for programming and services.
I think that it’s that bigger picture vision, looking ahead, and understanding that there are incredible folks like Will Toor, people who have that big-picture visionary look at where we need to go for meeting the goals that we’ve set. It’s not looking down. It’s looking up and out, and then with that, you also have to be an extremely collaborative person because I’m not a policy analyst. So I lean into a ton of expertise, whether that’s through, again, the communities for climate action lobbyists or policy analysts at the city of Boulder who do a ton of work at the Public Utilities Commission. So it’s leveraging these beautiful relationships and being a connector of sorts. I think that those two — big picture vision person, as well as a relationship builder — have really helped me in accelerating the innovative pieces that Boulder county does.
Now, I will say I’m not a detail-oriented person, which drives my staff crazy, but I think, in essence, I’m always trying to push the envelope of where Boulder County can showcase the ability of what’s possible. I’ll give a minor example of that because I think it helps to break it down, but this conversation is really interesting because what we’re talking about is cities and the role of sustainability professionals bringing up different programs, services, etc., forward. One of those was pooling our purchasing power. Actually, we did this in unison with San Francisco after you left, Melanie. We worked on a solarized campaign, right? So it’s basically pooled purchasing for aggregate solar, so working with different communities across the front range to get way more investment in renewables in a distributed sense, and we combined that and we said, “Well, why aren’t we doing this with electric vehicles?”
So we did that in 2013 for EVs, the first pool purchasing ever in the country for electric vehicles, and that worked so well up to a certain point where we started to see that, “Oh, my gosh, the policy isn’t matching the actual consumer demand.” So this year in 2022, automakers are finally required by the zero-emission vehicle mandate to increase the minimum percentage of zero-emission sales.
So at some point, the clean car standard is playing a massive role at the state level policy in order to unlock consumer demand for electric vehicles that we initiated through a pool purchasing program. So it goes both ways, which is really interesting, and I think that that’s a great example of showing the power of a local community and that, again, initiating that demand for whether that’s electric vehicles or decarbonizing the built environment.
Melanie Nutter: That’s such a great example. I love that example. Yeah. I would just add to that. I mean, I think the couple points that you made about really being future-focused and having that big picture vision I think is really critical for sustainability directors and also clearly being collaborative. I think a couple of other components are being able to be an advocate while being collaborative because I do think because a lot of this is about change and it is about changing the hearts and minds, whether it’s a decision maker or the public. I think really effective sustainability directors can do both where they can put on the advocate hat, but then also be very collaborative and able to meet people where they’re at.
I think that maybe my grassroots organizing background is realizing that you might have a passion or perspective, something that you want to see done, and the person you’re talking to may have a very different opinion, but how do you find that common ground? I guess it does come down to the collaboration, and I would agree with you. I think a lot of sustainability directors are not necessarily technical experts. They’re generalists and people who are passionate about the issue and have these other skillsets, but can bring the right people to the table to try to move the needle.
Andy Bush: Let me ask something that follows on that. Susie said earlier this is both fun and overwhelming at times. I think of that even in our own little piece of the business and what we’re trying to do, but I wonder. 2030 — it’s great that we made a bunch of 2030 goals because across the globe in the country, in that people are now realizing we can’t achieve them, and that the demand has increased faster than we thought on certain things. Our reductions have been slower than we’d hoped for on certain things, and the day-to-day climate catastrophes are starting to happen more often.
Well, I’m concerned about a lot of different things, but one of them is I almost wonder if this kind of a position or the city’s or county’s approach to it is going to have to shift from not just having the same person do the front line versus the long term, and it will almost become like the planning department versus the building department. Do you sense that happening in the profession?
Susie Strife: I’m so glad you asked that question, Andy, because just today at 4:00, we’re having an all-hands-on-deck meeting at the county to break down this understanding that we are all having major resource drain right now to literally still respond to and recover from, which we will for years, the Marshall fire. Which, again, 1,100 homes — the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history —
Andy Bush: That was the genesis of my question.
Susie Strife: Yes. So what I’ve said before this meeting is launched is we cannot continue to be the recovery agency, the response, I mean, we’re not doing direct response. Our team is obviously called to respond during times of emergency because we have extra staff, which we are happy to do because people have immediate needs right after a disaster like that, but for me, it’s actually amazing to see how much resource strain…
So I’ll give you another tangible example. Half of my team and a quarter of my budget is going straight to recovery for the Marshall fire. So what does that mean? It’s good because we have an opportunity to rebuild in the most resilient and climate-friendly manner, and we’re trying to provide incentives in order for our community to feel comfortable doing so, and it means that we are not doing what we should be doing in terms of the proactivity and planning —
Andy Bush: Planning, yeah.
Susie Strife: … in advance, and also helping other community members who didn’t get impacted by that fire adapt to what we’re up against this summer, which will likely be the hottest summer of all time. So I struggle. I truly am feeling the weight of being the first responder to the climate crisis and preparing for a very different future. We know that the climate impacts are already happening across multiple communities. Now, we know that these might be irreversible according to the latest IPCC climate report.
So it’s now absolutely critical that we prepare for a different future. So who’s doing that? Is that our team? Is that the office of emergency management? Is that a new team? Those are questions that we’re wading through right now.
William Shutkin: Yeah. All suggested or hinted at in your new title, right as of a couple of years ago, but it’s one thing to have a new title, it’s another thing to have the resources to be able to do that soup to nuts. Andy, I think that’s such a great question. The tension between being proactive and being reactive, it’s almost paradox, and there’s a related paradox — and I’d love to maybe turn this question to you, Melanie. That’s the paradox of environmental gentrification, especially in places like Boulder and San Francisco, which, again, are poster children not only for effective progressive policy, but also for a reactionary mode where so-called green cities or counties are very green on, say, EV infrastructure and renewables investment, but less green or progressive when it comes to, say, infill housing and mixed income development, namely low-income housing and workforce housing development in these same places.
This is, of course, part of the gist, the core of diversity, equity, inclusion when it comes to resilience and sustainability, which is: how do we build green communities that are also inclusive, affordable, and equitable? How have you, Melanie and Susie, in your respective positions and from your perches seen communities begin to square this circle, really embrace progressive environmental policy, and at the same time be really strong and focused on DEI?
Melanie Nutter: Yeah, it’s a great question. Just a couple thoughts. First, what you were talking about, Susie, regarding having to shift a lot of your resources to now doing the immediate response, I do think that is a tension. I think that we’re all realizing that there’s this tension between focusing on mitigation, but then not being able to do that when crisis hits. So that is going to be something that I think these roles and cities will grapple with — about how to manage that going forward. So just wanted to say that. Regarding green cities and gentrification that —
William Shutkin: Another tension, right?
Melanie Nutter: Yes, absolutely another tension. I have two thoughts about that. One is: we did some work a few years ago for Save The Bay, who was asking this exact same question saying, “We have had a role of protecting water quality in the Bay Area and really being focused on water in particular, but what’s the broader scope? How do we go back out to a wider lens of what role we’re playing and how we can support Bay Smart communities?”
So we had this very interesting experience working with Save The Bay trying to bring a lot of different actors to the table to ask these broader questions about how we advance sustainability in green communities while ensuring that we don’t make gentrification and some of these equity and diversity issues worse. It was a fascinating experience bringing together sustainability professionals, the private sector, the affordable housing sector, transportation advocates, region, the county.
What I really learned is that those silos still exist at the local level and at the regional level. A lot of people still stay in their lane. They’re building experts. They’re housing experts. They’re transportation experts. Sometimes even at the local level, those expertise areas don’t talk and do not collaborate about a master policy.
So I would say I am really excited to say that the city of San Francisco and their last climate action update included housing, and that was one of the first that I had heard of a city going outside of the scope of buildings, transportation, waste in their sustainability plan and really saying, “We as an environment department need to have a position on housing and on affordability because it is part of this broader picture.” So absolutely, William, I think it’s another huge tension and something that municipalities and regions will continue to grapple with.
William Shutkin: Well, in California, I mean, as you know so well, Melanie, Scott Wiener and so many in the Bay Area have been now for at least a half a decade really advocating for this critical nexus between climate land use and equity. It sounds like it’s finally having an impact, and we’ve certainly seen that with SB 8, 9, and 10 in California. A conversation we had earlier in our series with Conor Dougherty, the New York Times reporter who’s been reporting on this very subject. What about you, Susie, in Boulder? We’ve got a sustainability tax at the county level. We love to pay it in this county, and we struggle with the matter of affordability and inclusion.
Susie Strife: Absolutely. It’s interesting because as we’ve talked about this field burgeoning in a lot of different areas, I think this is the area of centering everything that we do on racial equity and inclusion and diversity and is absolutely imperative to dismantling, again, those power structures that keep all of the power elite in place to do exactly what they’ve been set up to do, which is to profit over our planet and mineral wealth, as well as keep disempowered communities disempowered.
Climate equity roles are now part of sustainability teams. We just hired our first climate equity specialist, and she has 30 years of incredible deep community engagement experience in the Latinx community. Every time I talk to her, I’m so inspired about what’s possible in terms of activating different types of communities to participate at that kind of level. She wants to help people of color in those communities go and testify for the first time and become part of a lobbying advocacy group.
These are the folks that we have long not engaged, and I think that it’s critical because a huge misconception is that low-income communities or people of color don’t care about climate change, and that is absolutely incorrect. They are experiencing climate impacts more than any other population. So they are very familiar with the changes that have happened and of the alarming trends that we’re up against with the climate crisis.
One really unique, neat growth that we’ve had at the county is what’s called the climate justice collaborative. It’s in a NASIC form, but it’s basically an organization that is formed through support through the USDN, and they’re social justice activists and change agents in our community that are trying to dismantle power structures and decision making power so that they can basically own and offer decisions that our leadership should consider as part of our climate equity strategy and our climate action strategy moving forward.
So in other words, I’m actually going to be leaning on them to help initiate and provide pathways forward and strategy forward to ensure that everyone is included, there’s access for all, and that our disempowered communities have full power to make those decisions. So it’s a unique and interesting group that formed. I think that’s happening in other communities. Fort Collins I know has done an incredible job in integrating equity as well.
Andy Bush: I’d like to zoom out a little bit on the whole question of climate equity in the sense that I was part of the ULI Excellence Awards for the America Jury this past week in San Diego, and we spent 40 hours in a conference room, but one of the big debates back and forth was rebuild or don’t rebuild, right? We were talking about hurricanes, tornadoes, rising sea level, and the whole idea was, “Are there some places we should just stop rebuilding instead of hardening?” and someone will say, “Tell that to the Maldives or the folks in Holland.” Really, folks who can least afford to either rebuild or relocate are the ones that are the most affected by these questions. I don’t think we came up with an answer, but it’s a really difficult topic. Thoughts?
Melanie Nutter: It is a really difficult topic. I would just say that my perspective is any opportunity to incorporate nature-based solutions, and whether that is something that can be supported by a city, a region. Here in Chicago, there’s been a lot of thinking about Lake Michigan and what’s happening even with the rising lake and how it’s impacting the hard scape because we don’t have nature-based solutions anywhere really along the lake shore. So I think there are a lot of really good examples now of how you incorporate those nature-based solutions, as well as really support local communities by being part of those nature-based solutions and providing additional community benefits, as well as resilience. I know that’s a really high level, pretty simple answer, but that’s where my head goes in terms of where we can really make some impact and progress.
Andy Bush: Susie?
Susie Strife: Well, it’s great this thread about what’s possible for our community, especially with workforce development and economic development, and they go hand-in-hand, and inclusion, you’re right, Melanie. Natural climate solutions are something that we are actually very serious about, and that’s part of an RFP that I released last week to really jumpstart and send a market signal that we want to not only get prepared for hopefully a regulated carbon market in the future, whereby people can use carbon revenues to support themselves, but also the intersectional benefits of carbon drawdown on the nature side with resilience and workforce development.
So I’ll give you an example. Zoom out or zoom in. If you look at soil sequestration and what we can do with our thousands and thousands of acres of ag land here, the potential is huge. What can we do to restore our forests that have high fire danger, and at the same time our carbon sinks? Those are the types of questions. How can we incentivize farmers to get off synthetic fertilizers and to restore the soil and pay them for that soil restoration? How can we get youth to be part of youth climate core and do some serious moving of earth to create the hydrological cycles that are needed to ensure that we have a more resilient landscape?
These are all interrelated questions that I think we’re trying to tackle as a local community and look forward to hopefully federal funding to support those initiatives, and hopefully the climate provisions of the build back better plan will allow for those types of natural climate solutions to flourish because that’s what we can do at the local scale. We shouldn’t be funding, even though we probably will need to, direct air capture, right? That’s $500 per ton of CO2 removed. Whereas nature-based solutions have that intersectional benefit of both resilience again and carbon drawdown.
William Shutkin: That’s so exciting, Susie. Speaking of drawdown, we’re going to wind down. So thank you for the cue, but a couple of quick thoughts and then I’ll turn it to Andy for any of his parting thoughts. Well, first of all, the two of you are so inspiring, Susie, to use your favorite term, which I love. You really are. I mean, I can’t help but think we are in good hands at all levels of government with people like you in charge, advising, consulting, whatever the particular mode of action. It just makes me feel great about the future.
Secondly, Susie, you noted how the county has just hired its first ever climate equity specialist. So your new job circuit a decade ago are now spawning yet more new jobs, which to me are just signals of demand and need. In the end, I’ve always looked to these positions as beacons or indicators of a better future to the extent we’re now talking about these things not just as responding to threats and catastrophe, but really creating new possibilities, Susie, looking up as opposed to just down, Melanie, casually mentioning Chicago’s nature-based solutions ideas. That’s super exciting and super cool.
We’re all part of this evolutionary process of learning and doing, but you are in these seats, which to me in a very concentrated way express the possibility and the hope of a better, greener, more equitable future. You have job descriptions to boot, which is so cool. So thanks for sharing what you’re doing, what you’ve done, and where we’re going with us this past hour. Really appreciate it.
Andy Bush: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure. As always, I feel like I come away with more than I put in, which is such a wonderful part of the experience too. So I really appreciate it. I think for me, I’m an optimist only because it’s a lot more fun than being a pessimist. I think we have wonderful opportunities in front of us. My son, at one point, he came home and he had to create a four-word haiku for who he was, and I forget exactly what it was, but it made our whole family go through the whole exercise. When I think about what the task at hand is, which is enormous, but some of the opportunities, I think the four-word haiku for our future could be I surprised even myself or something like that.
William Shutkin: Nice. And, I like that.
Susie Strife: That is beautiful. I’m so glad you shared that, Andy. I needed that shot of optimism.
William Shutkin: That’s so good.
Melanie Nutter: William and Andy, thank you so much for the opportunity. Susie, it was so great to talk with you. I am super inspired.
Susie Strife: You, too. You, too. It’s funny. I was thinking about when the graduate students, I say to them, “Good choice. Now, you have massive job security in this field,” right? This field is only going to be more explosive as time goes on. Then I love how Bill McKibben always says, “If you want to really have an impact in climate, quit your job right now and work in the sustainability field.” I think that’s true in what we’re seeing, right?
Melanie Nutter: Absolutely.
Susie Strife: It’s like there is enough for everybody to do and more because the environmental movement has always been about stopping things and preventing things, but we are going to need massive growth while we do this, right? We’re going to need entire new structures and systems and utilities, and that’s going to take a lot of ingenious, amazing work.
Melanie Nutter: Yes, not only doing less harm but doing a lot more good.
William Shutkin: Right on. Right on. I love it. Well, I think, Susie, as the Oscar title suggests, the mission is creeping across so many different silos and areas of activity, and that’s a good thing because we’re now seeing how all of these areas are connected and now we need to resource them. We need to make sure we’re funding these roles and responsibilities in a way that’s equal to the challenge and to the opportunity.